Mired in the history of slavery in America’s deep South, Miss Juneteenth explores Black female empowerment and the complexities of the American Dream. The film is set around Juneteenth, the anniversary of the date the last slaves were freed in America, 19 June 1865, nearly three years after Lincoln’s proclamation of emancipation.
Struggle is at the centre of this story – Turquoise’s struggle as a working single mother; to make ends meet; to accept her failure to live up to the greatness of her Miss Juneteenth crown; to get her daughter Kai to buy into the dream that she was unable to realise. The heat of the South is ever present, like the steam and smoke rising from the barbecue in the bar and grill where Turquoise works.
But far from feeling stifling and oppressive, the film is a joyful observation of Black lives, timely in this moment of global protest against racial injustice. The camera acts as a spotlight on the community and the ways in which they continue to convert the lasting heritage of Jim Crow into power, with vignettes of Black-owned businesses, dancing troupes and parades peppered throughout. Black bodies and skin are also celebrated, accentuated by the various light sources utilised in the cinematography – the cold white light of Kai’s mobile phone, the orange streetlight beaming into the window, birthday candles, the red and blue lights of the bar.
Channing Godfrey Peoples, writing and directing her first feature, was inspired by her own upbringing in the film’s deep Southern location, and the authenticity of that experience is key in depicting the nuance of a community not solely defined by race and provides a window into the soul of this town. Strong central performances from Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson and newcomer Alexis Chikaeze allow the audience to settle into these characters and their individual trajectories.
Although the legacy of slavery infuses the film, Miss Juneteenth eschews the tendency to focus on Black pain, instead offering a celebratory story – celebrating especially the strength and hope of Black women in a world where the odds are stacked against them. Turquoise’s journey from failed beauty queen to business owner embodies this, as do the words of Maya Angelou that are recited to us throughout: “Now you understand / Just why my head’s not bowed… ’Cause I’m a woman / Phenomenally.”
Originally published: 24 September 2020